- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Andre Agassi served notice yesterday that he is not 100 percent for this week's Legg Mason Tennis Classic his back has been bothering him from hunching over to hold the hand of his 9 -month-old son, Jaden, who is learning to walk.
OK, so Agassi only joked yesterday about the back trouble; in fact, he is in good health. He gushed last week that fatherhood has proved "the greatest thing I have ever experienced," his game on hardcourts this year has prospered, and he arrives this week in Rock Creek Park as the top seed, poised to win his sixth Legg Mason title.
Agassi is and has been for years the pied piper of the tournament. He is the player whose match fans don't want to miss and the one fans hound most for an autograph.
That hasn't changed. At 32, Agassi is still going strong, and said yesterday the game is more enjoyable than ever. Though he hasn't won a Grand Slam this year, he's won four times on tour and will be one of the favorites when the U.S. Open begins in two weeks.
"It's funner now than it's ever been," he said yesterday. "I think I'm more committed now and some parts are more rewarding now than ever. The losses are more disappointing, too."
His second-round loss at Wimbledon, a straight-sets defeat to Paradorn Srichaphan (the No.14 seed in this week's field) has stuck with him. It's also helped motivate him throughout the summer. For players like Agassi, one of only five players ever to win all four Grand Slam events in a career, the Slams are the time to shine. Losing early is tough to accept.
The motivation has served its purpose. Agassi has blazed through opponents in an extremely successful campaign on hardcourts, on which he has compiled a 22-4 record and three titles.
Long known as one of the top returners on tour, Agassi has kept his pinpoint groundstrokes precise as he continues to pound away from the baseline. He has stayed incredibly fit and has retained a great degree of mobility.
"I'm always changing, making adjustments based on the way I am feeling," Agassi said. "My experience has been it's not always better to train longer, but smarter. It's just knowing when to give yourself that extra push and when to give yourself some rest. Sometimes your best preparation is rest."
Rest is essential these days for Agassi. He won the Masters Series event in Los Angeles in late July, then pulled out of the Toronto event at the last minute, drawing an $80,000 fine from the ATP.
"I need to pay attention to every sort of kink I may feel, and I have to give myself the rest and the reason to go hard again," Agassi said. " The difficulty is the expectation that I can play the same schedule that a 20-year-old can play. I can't do it."
But remarkably, Agassi has maintained his success into his 30s. Last year he became the oldest player since Jimmy Connors in 1984 to finish the year ranked in the top three. And he's done this while devoting a significant amount of time to tennis' First Family, wife Steffi Graf and Jaden. Typically, Graf and Jaden accompany Agassi to tournaments, but they aren't with him this week.
Agassi said he's had to adjust taking care of his son. He goes about things off the court at a slower, more relaxed pace, and realizes he can't just pick up and move around like he used to. "You've got to make decisions that are the best for [Jaden], not as ideal for you," Agassi said. "It's made parts of what I do a lot harder, and parts of what I do a lot better.
"It's like a discovery every day to learn more about who my son is and to share in that side of it. It's just a joy anybody that's a parent would understand," Agassi said last week. As for Graf, "she's a better mom than I even thought she would be, which is saying a lot."
But for this week, it's all about tennis. He last won the Legg Mason in 1999; he lost to Alex Corretja in the finals in 2000 and to Sjeng Schalken in the semifinals a year ago. Getting that winning feeling back this week would give him a sizable boost heading into the Open.
"I'm hoping I can stick around all week," he said. "I'm feeling good, back on the hardcourts, which allows my game to come out. After Wimbledon, I've been pretty motivated to turn things around."
He'll be fine, just as long as that back isn't sore.

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